Gossip As A Gauge Of A
Religion's Commitment To Reality
Every religion (and every moral system) of which I am
aware condemns gossip. None do it in as minute detail as Judaism.
It has generally been taken for granted by elevated
individuals that gossip is bad.
2007, Dennis Prager passionately opposed outing the names of the DC
madam's clients. Why ruin their lives over something so trivial?
Gossip undoubtedly destroys friendships, marriages,
business partnerships and sometimes causes people to kill themselves
and others, but much of the time, the damage that is blamed on gossip
more rightly belongs on people who have acted badly. Such people often
blame gossip for holding them accountable for their behavior.
If a man cheats on his wife, sometimes it is wrong to
gossip about it and sometimes it is right. It depends on the
circumstance. Sometimes it would be better for the wife to be informed
and sometimes it would not.
Gossip is as bad as water. Sometimes water can save a
life and sometimes water can kill.
As Dennis Prager says, ethics are both situational and
absolute. The context determines the moral absolute. Sometimes it is
right to lie ("Where are you hiding the Jews?") and right to kill (such
as the Nazis during World War II).
There's no escape from making moral judgments and
deciding when to speak and when to keep silent, when to act and when to
News, August 17, 2005:
"If we listen we can learn what people find offensive
or what people find acceptable, what they don't find acceptable," says
Dr. Sarah Wert, a research psychologist. "So to that extent, it's a way
to learn how to be a better social actor."
...The accuracy of the gossip may not matter as much
as how often you engage in it. "Gossip humanizes people," Froelich
said. "And when people on the street can be like, 'oh, she's rich,
she's beautiful, she's famous, she seems to have everything, but oh
wait, her fiancé cheated on her too, hmmm …'"
Orthodox rabbi and historian Dr. Marc B. Shapiro
said in a 2008 lecture for Torah
in Motion on "The Lives of the Gedolim":
In his first lecture in 2012 on R.
Meir Simcha of Dvinsk for Torah in Motion,
history professor Marc B.
"If you read my
blogs, you'll see that I am a relentless exposer of the
fraudulence not just in the chareidi world but in the Modern Orthodox
world. It all needs to be exposed. But that doesn't mean that every
simple person needs to know... As Rav Kook says, if they come into our
world and try to affect us with their fraudulent stories, it needs to
be exposed. But if they want to live by these bubbemeisers
(old wives tales), that's a way of life. I'm like Rabbi Slifkin in this
regard. Only if it threatens to interfere in the wider community.
"It's hard to know what lashon hara
(gossip) is. You don't really know what lashon
hara is. I have read many letters of gedolim and
they are full of negative comments about other rabbis, which you would
say is lashon hara. As anyone knows, they
badmouth them all the time. If you asked the rav, he would say it is not
lashon hara. The Torah says you have to expose chanafim
("The admonition to expose hypocrites is stated in Yoma
86b where it is derived from [the legal category of] Chillul
HaShem," emails Marc in reply to my question.)
"We are supposed to expose hypocrisy. I would say that
if you asked all these rabbonim who say terrible things about other
ones and were great talmidei chachamim, if you asked them, they would
say it is not lashon hara, but he's a fraud and I
have to expose him. It could be that he's not a fraud and that it's
just a personal dispute.
"I don't think it's lashon hara
to talk about a dispute that the whole world knew about and it was in
all the newspapers... If a certain rav did a bad thing. There's a rav,
not a gadol of the first calibre but of the second calibre, but he had
a child out of wedlock when he was about 17 and in yeshiva. About 20
years ago, one of the Israeli newspapers exposed him and published the
birth certificate. I think that's a terrible breach of privacy. He made
a mistake when he was young. I don't think it's anyone's business. I
would never expose something like that. If I knew about it, I would
probably choose not to write about him because how could you write
about him and not talk about it?
"If there was a case like this where he abandoned the
girl and wanted nothing to do with them and then he became a big
scholar, a Talmud Chacham, a posek, I don't think that's lashon
hara. This would be an example of exposing the hypocrites."
"I try to balance Jewish values with secular values.
As a secular historian, you go into a grave and dig up the body if you
need to. They dug up Zachary Taylor's body to see if he was poisoned. I
would have no problem as a secular historian if I was writing about a
figure like Einstein, but among gedolim, I do not do that. I can
honestly say that I've never had to make that choice with Rabbi Yaakov
Jechiel Weinberg. I would rather not write about somebody than have to
cover something like that up... Certain great rabbinic figures, I would
treat differently than other figures. If that is not in correspondence
with historical [analysis], what are they going to do? Take my tenure
away? Life is not only about historical craft."
Various rabbis made fun of the book Chofetz
Chaim. The Chazon
Ish is said to have made fun of the Chofetz
Chaim book on gossip. "Even if these stories are not
accurate, that they are told in the yeshiva world shows that this is an
ethos that great rabbis shared."
Chazon Ish said the Chofetz
Chaim did not know what he was talking about in this book.
According to his critics, the Chofetz
Chaim created halacha
(Jewish law) out of mussar
(ethical exhortations, frequently extreme). That he took aggadic
(stories) things and turned them into halacha.
That he took ethical statements and turned them into Jewish law.
"I don't know today if anyone would have the courage to say something
like that [to make these criticisms of the Chofetz Chaim book]."
According to the Chofetz Chaim, no gossip is permitted, even between
husband and wife. Rav
Shlomo Zalman Auerbach thought differently.
Today, the Chofetz
Chaim is the last word in these matters and that Rav
Shlomo Zalman Auerbach would have the temerity to tell
yeshiva students that they don't have to listen to the Chofetz
Chaim, that's a bit difficult in the yeshiva world today and
so they removed it [from a haredi publication of Rav
Shlomo Zalman Auerbach].
According to Rabbi
Jacob Emden, you could say Lashon Hara
(gossip) about anyone who was your enemy. I guess this is a
justification for all the Lashon Hara
he tells in his own books. There are all sorts of heterim (permissions)
Hara. The Meiri
says that if you say it publicly, it is not Lashon Hara.
There are all sorts of views out there by great rabbis. Then the Chofetz
Chaim codified Judaism's teachings on gossip and made it
appear as though Judaism had a universal prohibition on speaking ill of
If you read the writings of the great rabbis, almost all of these
gadolim violate the laws of the Chofetz
Chaim (Desiring Life). Of course, these great
rabbis do not think they are saying Lashon Hara.
They believe the target of their enmity deserves it. If their target is
doing bad things, then they deserve.
It's depressing. For many of these rabbis, it's just a personal
New York Times: Have You Heard? Gossip Turns Out
to Serve a Purpose
Given this protective group function, gossiping too
little may be at least as risky as gossiping too much, some
psychologists say. After all, scuttlebutt is the most highly valued
social currency there is. While humor and story telling can warm any
occasion, a good scoop spreads through a room like an illicit and
irresistible drug, passed along in nods and crooked smiles, in discreet
walks out to the balcony, the corridor, the powder room.
Knowing that your boss is cheating on his wife, or
that a sister-in-law has a drinking problem or a rival has benefited
from a secret trust fund may be enormously important, and in many cases
change a person's behavior for the better.
"We all know people who are not calibrated to the
social world at all, who if they participated in gossip sessions would
learn a whole lot of stuff they need to know and can't learn anywhere
else, like how reliable people are, how trustworthy," said Sarah Wert,
a psychologist at Yale. "Not participating in gossip at some level can
be unhealthy, and abnormal."
Unless you acknowledge the powerful good that gossip can
give, you are not confronting the issue. Almost all religious texts
I've read about gossip, including the best (such as by Rabbi
Joseph Telushkin), give short shrift to the moral necessity
of much gossip (which protects the innocent from predators). By so
doing, religion ignores reality and impedes progress towards a better
The primary reason gossip has a bad name (in secular or
religious life) is that the benefits of gossip are diffused among many
people (though they are better informed, they have little incentive to
speak up for the value of gossip) while the price of gossip is
concentrated on individual subjects who have a huge incentive to tamp
Let me give an example. Let's suppose a rabbi is so
physically affectionate (not that he's a predator) that he makes some
people he hugs uncomfortable.
Gossip about this hugging rabbi protects those who would
not like to hugged by the rabbi.
The rabbi could take this gossip as a form of reproof
and reform his ways, but his most likely reaction would be to feel
angry and protest vigorously that he's done nothing wrong, and that
this gossip is evil because it humiliates him unnecessarily.
From the 8/96 issue of Psychology Today:
The English word "gossip" originated as "godsibb,"
meaning "a person related to one in God," or a godparent. Until the
1800s, "gossip" denoted friendship. Today gossip is defined by the
dictionary as "chatty talk; the reporting of sensational or intimate
"If people aren't talking about other people, it's a
signal that something is wrong - that we feel socially alienated or
indifferent," says Ralph Rosnow, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at
Temple University and coauthor of Rumor and Gossip: The Social
Psychology of Hearsay.
"For a real understanding of our social environment,
gossip is essential," agrees Jack Levin, Ph.D., professor of sociology
and criminology at Boston's Northeastern University and coauthor of
Gossip: The Inside Scoop. "It's primary function is to help us make
social comparisons. For example, if we read bad news about celebrities
in the tabloids, or get into the gruesome details of our neighbor's
misery over a cup of coffee, our own problems begin to pale in
Many people may gain from being gossiped about.
Targets of gossip are made more human, more easy to identify with.
Gossip is a way for people to let you know, without
confrontation, the limits on personal behavior. "If you move into a
community and your neighbor tells you how the previous homeowner never
disposed of his garbage properly, his gossip is letting you in on
"Gossip shepherds the herd. It says: these are the
boundaries and you're crossing them. You're not abiding by the rules
and you'd better get back in step," says Rosnow.
"If you want to know about the kind of insurance
coverage your employer offers, look in the company handbook," says
Levin. "But if you want to know who to avoid, who the boss loves or
loathes, who to go to when you need help, what it really takes to get a
promotion or raise, and how much you can safely slack off, you're
better off paying attention to the company grapevine."
Gossip tells you who's in. If you're worth being
talked about, you're in. If you've got valuable information, you're in.
Kids' gossip is more innocent and cruel than that of
adults. "Cruel comments, but effective ones," says Levin, "because the
target learns some important information. Namely, that he is not
invisible to the rest of the world. The result? This vital piece of
information [badly dressed, a cheater or whatever] helps him see he
needs to change his offensive behavior."
Women gossip more than men. Women talk about people in
their lives while men engage in "shop talk," which revolves around
work, sports stars, politicians…
"Gossip is similar to a Rorschach test," says Levin.
"If you look at the nature of someone's gossip, you can find out what
"We found that people who gossip the most rank highest
on the anxiety scale," says Rosnow. "Not only do they disclose more,
but the anxious are on the receiving end of gossip more often and are
more likely than those less anxious to consider information crucial."
Dr. Gary Allen Fine says "we gossip about people we
care about. We don't bother talking about people who don't matter to
Most of the time, the gossip spread between two people
about a third absent friend is neutral news: a pregnancy, a promotion.
But betraying a confidence, spreading sensitive information like an
adulterous affair, can end a friendship.
When Dr. Rosnow asked subjects who they "liked," he
found gossipees - the people being talked about - were usually not the
most popular, essentially because they're different and don't conform.
But the people engaging in gossip weren't particularly popular either
because of their untrustworthiness.
Gossip is always about people, involving either fact
or supposition. Rumors may or may not involve people but are always
speculative. Rosnow says rumors deal with people's anxieties. There are
two types: wish rumors that we hope are true, and dread rumors that we
pray are false.
"Rumors are an echo of ourselves," says Dr. Jean-Noel
Kapferer. "They reveal the desires, fears, and obsessions of a
In an essay in the New Republic, Nicholas Lemann
writes: "Gossip is an appurtenance of a striving, socially unified
society. It's worth watching as a barometer of our aspirations. As the
middle classes obtain for themselves the glamrous, turbulent lives of
the rich and famous, there is real danger that gossip as we know it
could whither away. We could return to the status quo, ante-Society in
which nobody's personal life was considered to be nationally riveting.
"The truth is, the proper time to become alarmed about
the role of gossip in American Society is when there starts to be less
© Associated Newspapers Ltd., 31 July 1998, This Is
Old-fashioned gossip is not only about dishing the
dirt - it is essential to survival, according to an academic study
today. Any employer who wants a happy and efficient company should let
office gossip continue rather than try to stamp it out, the report
It revealed that the need to gossip and spread rumours
is an instinct modern humans have kept since the Stone Age.
In those days it was vital to swap information on
where the food was and to let others know who was the chief hunter, and
so on. Today it is not that much different says Nigel Nicholson,
professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School.
"People create rumours when they are uncertain and need to create
certainty to fill a vacuum," he added. "They gossip to create a social
network and put themselves in that circle and give themselves an
advantage by being in with the right group.
"Gossiping - which goes back to the Stone Age and
beyond - is good for you. It makes you more psychologically positive.
"A good boss should not try to quash rumours and gossip with memos and
e-mail, he should get involved in it. I call it
management-by-wandering-about. Go out there and communicate properly.
He should know what people talk about."
The report, published by the influential journal
Harvard Business Review, urges employers to communicate by talking
instead of on computers or paper.
Without the traditional gossip network - from
neighbours chatting over the garden fence to political spin doctors -
society could crumble. "Any social system needs gossip to remain
intact," he added.
Gregory Rodriquez writes in The Los Angeles Times July
A few years ago, two British researchers concluded
that celebrity-watching — if it doesn't become an all-out obsession —
can be a healthy part of adolescent development and bonding. A survey
of English schoolchildren revealed that "celebrity attachments" serve
as "pseudo-friends" who become the subject of gossip and discussion
among their real friends. The kids' fascination with celebs not only
helps them bond with classmates but to become more autonomous from
their parents. Meantime, those children who do develop unhealthy
fixations on the lives of stars were likely to be lonely and lacking
strong bonds with family and friends.
I suspect that the same elements driving adolescent
fandom in Britain — bonding, socialization — also explain why so many
grown-ups like to keep up on Brangelina and Britney. Sure, the handful
of fanatics who literally worship Michael Jackson or Madonna are
maladjusted, but there are millions of others for whom celebrity gossip
serves a useful function, especially in societies no longer
characterized by tightknit communities.
Study after study has tracked our eroding commitment
to community, as more Americans spend time with their computers, or at
work, instead of in bowling leagues or with their loved ones. Following
the trials and tribulations of the rich and famous can be a way for us
to connect to others and even to make sense of our lives. No, I don't
mean that we actually think that Angelina Jolie is our friend, but that
the chatter she inspires can sometimes link us to strangers.
Think of how sports talk breaks the ice between men.
As a male who doesn't much care for sports, I envy the kind of bonding
that sports lovers share. Celebrity gossip may be more associated with
women, but it crosses gender lines more readily than sports. And it
provides the juicy stories and personal dilemmas that people love to
chat about and analyze together.
Whispering about the lives of others always has served
as a finely tuned social warning system that helps people avoid the
inevitable pitfalls of life. Did you hear who she hooked up with? Can
you believe he did that? How could they have fallen for the Nigerian
e-mail scam? Plenty of not-so-idle gossip warns us about bad guys, the
consequences of certain types of behavior and iffy practices of all
If you watched the extraordinarily boring Larry King
interview with Paris Hilton, you realize that Paris herself isn't
anywhere near as interesting as what we all think about her. That's the
point. The long arm of electronic media has allowed us to include an
ever-expanding world of complete strangers in our social circle. And
just as we would a neighbor or classmate, we judge and dissect her life
as a means to justify our own, reinforce our life choices, sort out and
share our opinions with others.
"She's an idiot." "I feel sorry for her." "She got
what she deserved." However we talk about Paris, it says a lot more
about us than it does about her.
Paris mania feeds an admittedly flimsy form of
community, but don't blame her, the media or the unwashed masses for
that. Everyone from Tocqueville to Wim Wenders has commented upon the
dangers of anomie in American life. Over the last half a century,
patterns of suburbanization have intensified that sense of alienation
and rootlessness. Since the 1970s, a growing disenchantment with
politics has further loosened our links to community. We don't like the
political process because we feel that we have no effect on it, and we
suspect that it's dominated by narrow, powerful forces that don't have
our best interests at heart.
Morality of Gossip
Luke writes in 1998: When I first came to Judaism, I
took on the value that gossip was a sin. It was destructive and
unethical. Then, from late 1995 onwards, I resumed my career as a
journalist. Part of my job is to deal in gossip. I read Rabbi
Joseph Telushkin's book on gossip (Words
That Wound, Words That Heal) and found it initially
Now I've developed a reputation as a professional
gossip. That it is what I do for a living. I've now also revised my
views on the morality of gossip. I now think of gossip as like any
other activity, morally neutral. The morality of gossip depends
entirely on its content and context. I now no longer think of gossip as
I'm reading a book entitled "Good Gossip." It is one of
many academic works over the past few years in praise of gossip,
pointing out the good that gossip does, such as bonding, community,
developing, enforcing and subverting norms, challenging power,
overturning institutions. I no longer agree with the comment that
idiots talk about people, and the wise about ideas. Why are ideas more
important than people? Sometimes they are and sometimes they are not.
Context is king.
Ethel writes: "My experience with gossip was
work-related. I took a college course on management of human resources.
To my great shock, there was a section defining the grapevine as a
legitimate communication source. It changed my whole POV concerning
gossip. It's so rational too. So it's really important to accept gossip
and then manage it personally so it doesn't effect one's own good
judgement. One's personal observations should be primary when
decision-making is needed."
Gossip serves an additional role that is still
significant today, but was very important to our ancestors. Gossip
develops the values, significance, judgmental capacity, and group
concensus -- or chasm -- of the gossipers.
I agree with Luke's words, "...the good that gossip does, such as
bonding, community, developing, enforcing and subverting norms..."
Ancestors were ravaged by disease, infirmity, and the elements, to an
extent that we find hard to imagine. If a member of the group were
suspected of being, what we now call, less lucid .... then drawing that
person into gossip could test that person's judgment.
Puzzles are central to mythology ; ditto for gossip. I wonder if any
languages have one word for our two concepts: myth and gossip.
There's that guy on the radio, who's arguing for the importance of
Values in our schools. Lots of settings determine values ---
-- Eye-to-eye explanation from parent to child
-- Formal explanation by religious institutions
-- Formal teaching by schools.
Some people have the audacity to claim that *actual practice* is at
least half as significant as *formal explanation* in these three
Now, let's consider ----- gossip: Children's values are shaped as much
by vicarious participation in gossip, as they are shaped by some of the
settings mentioned above.
Among teenagers exploring the realm of less-restricted behavior, gossip
is not so much about confirming 'valid' information about THEM 'over
there.' Instead, gossip forges and shephards the behavior of oneself
and one's closest peers. It does so for
better or worse.
In summary, here's another puzzle: As a whole, gossip is bad. Yet not
only is some gossip good, some is essential.
From The New Republic, William Powers writes 6/9/97:
...undergirding all tabloid journalism is a rigid code
of right and wrong, in which people are held to very particular
standards of behavior. In this system, which may be the closest thing
we have today to a universal populist ethos, all the ancient social
norms are honored: thou shalt not kill, rape, steal, lie and so forth.
But in the tabloids' reckoning of the world, which is calculated to
mirror that of the supermarket masses, two sins in particular--pride
and hypocrisy-- have special importance. This is why the JonBenet
Ramsey case, which in the tabloid storyline is really about two parents
who exploited their daughter's beauty to feed their own pride, is the
premier tabloid story of the day. Many children are murdered each year,
but this is not just a murder story, it's a morality play about a "tiny
beauty" and her wicked stage parents. "Away from the bright lights,"
the Star reported, "she just wanted to be a normal kid." This is
probably pretty much the way most Americans see the story, too.
And to the tabloids, the O.J. Simpson story, which
preceded JonBenet in the number-one spot, was not a parable about race,
as the mainstream media suggested. It was about a celebrity who thought
he was above the law. (And this is certainly the way a lot of people
saw the O.J. case.) Nothing raises tabloid fury more than the spectacle
of a celebrity getting away with something, or getting above himself.
In the pages of the National Enquirer, drug abuse, infidelity and
myriad other wrongs are often forgiven, but if you are caught
pretending to be something you're not--caught being too big for your
britches--they'll flay you. Far from mindlessly adoring celebrities in
the way the New York glossies and many newspapers do, the tabloids
cover movie stars and other famous people with one eye narrowed,
ever-vigilant for phoniness, grossness or some species of immoral
behavior. Violators are swiftly, gleefully cut down. It is ruthless and
ugly and cruel, but it is arguably more honest than the way the proper
press covers these things. Who do you think has a truer sense of
Roseanne--the average tabloid reader or the reader of John Lahr's New
Yorker valentine? When Magic Johnson was revealed to be infected with
the HIV virus, who did a more brutally honest job of covering the story
of his promiscuous lifestyle--the tabs or the Times?
From 12/27/2000 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
But the battle against gossip has been a long and
mostly unsuccessful one, partly because it's such a fixture of human
communication, according to Dan Santoro, an associate professor of
sociology at the University of Pittsburgh -- Johnstown.
"People have always gossiped," he said. "Maybe, at one
time, gossip was news if you lived in a village and there were no
formal channels for disseminating information."
In pre-industrial societies, he said, relationships
were based on customs and traditions. "What was really important,"
Santoro said, "was your reputation. The fear of your reputation being
questioned kept people in line.
"In our society right now, it has just become a big
industry. Your personal reputation isn't as important as it used to
Gossip and rumors always have been a part of politics.
In her book, "Scorpion Tongues: The Irresistible History of Gossip in
American Politics" (William Morrow, 1998), author Gail Collins writes
about George Washington's alleged mistresses, the rumor that Grover
Cleveland beat his wife so severely during her pregnancy that their
daughter was born with extensive brain damage and the story that when
Woodrow Wilson proposed to his second wife, she was so surprised that
she fell out of bed.
Various magazines, talk shows and TV programs
featuring "stars" such as Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern and Don Imus
track the real and imagined peccadilloes of public figures.
Jim Lichtman, an author and ethics specialist in
Santa Barbara, Calif., divides gossip into two categories: talk among
family and friends, and malicious or unethical gossip. That does not
mean, he said, that either is right. "Would you want somebody passing
around inaccurate or false rumors about yourself?" he asked.
"The real criteria we should use, although it sounds
simple, is to more or less follow the golden rule: `Do unto others as
you would have others do to you.' "
Lichtman is author of "The Lone Ranger's Code of the
West" (Scribbler's Ink, 1996), a book focusing on eight ethical values
of the masked do-gooder. A frequent speaker on ethics to corporations,
Lichtman likes to challenge his audiences to ponder ethics questions
with, "What would the Lone Ranger do?"
It's a way, he said, to force people to be more
conscious about their decisions and have a greater commitment to
ethical values. To that end, Lichtman said, a person doesn't have to
speak gossip in order to be guilty of it. And it doesn't stop there.
"As soon as you participate in it, you are involved,"
he said. "You begin to lower the bar for yourself. Other things become
less important. "In business and in public life today ... the thing you
erode away faster than anything else is trust. Once the credibility is
gone ... you're going to have to work two, three, four times as hard to
get it back."
Luke says 5/15/05: I have studied the Chafetz Chaim
(translated into English) and rabbi Telushkin's book Words That Wound,
Words That Heal. In fact, I have read every book (religious or secular)
on gossip I could get my hands on (about two dozen).
If I were to observe the restrictions of the Chafetz
Chaim, I would not be able to publish most of my website lukeford.net.
I wouldn't be able to work as a journalist. Nobody would. Journalism
would be impossible.
Surely Judaism's teachings on forbidden speech are more
complex than what the Chafetz Chaim codified. The example of Judaism's
sacred texts, such as the Bible and the Talmud, are filled with
examples of Jewish leaders being held accountable for their behavior
and called out on it.
The problem with much of the reflexive religious
teachings against gossip is that they focus on the harm done to
specific individuals who are gossiped about (and let's focus here on
gossip that is true) and ignore the benefit widely shared among many
people from gaining the information of that gossip. As in free trade,
the price paid by targets of gossip can be huge, giving them a huge
incentive to fight against gossip, while the benefits of the gossip are
spread out among hundreds of people. Thus, few of them have an
incentive to speak out on behalf of the accurate gossipm, such as that
a particular rabbi should not work with kids or counsel women because
he's a predator.
Does This Information Serve
The Public Good?
Yudelson writes 5/15/05:
Many years ago, when I was at Yeshiva College and on
the editorial board of Hamevaser, I had a late night discussion with
some of my colleagues about the question of Lashon
Hora [gossip] and journalism. The standard, according to the
Chofetz Chaim, is not "is the information derogatory" but "does this
information serve the public good"?
Clearly, political news qualifies, because a society
with a press that criticizes its leaders is better than a society (such
as the Chofetz Chaim's Russia) lacking such a press.
In fact, a quick glance at NYTimes.com indicates that
all of the current headlines meet the criterion of serving the public
The one exception that we thought of, where standard
journalistic practice is at odds with the Public Good standard of the
Chofetz Chaim, would the publication of allegations and other charges
filed against citizens who are still presumptively innocent. I believe
Halacha might mandate that the right to release the name of an accused
or arrested suspect prior to conviction belongs only to the accused.
This would be where the citizen is in custody or otherwise not
dangerous; situations like the FBI Most Wanted List, where the
criminals are at large and fleeing arrest, are different, because
society has an interest in catching suspects.
Luke says: I don't believe "public good" was the Chofetz
Chaim's standard. Where does he say that?
Rabbi Ari Kahn writes: "Individuals who behave in an
extreme anti-social manner lose the right of being protected by the
laws of Loshan Hara. Individuals who are predators certainly lose this
right. Individuals who may be future victims have a right to know about
someone who is potentially threatening them. I am suggesting that a
Beit Din make these determinations."
Making Of The American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times
Will writes in The NYT Book Review:
For more than three decades, [Jeffrey Peter] Hart, an
emeritus professor of English at Dartmouth, has been a senior editor of
Review. There he has seen, and helped to referee,
conservatism's struggles of self-definition. His book is a gossipy
memoir leavened by a quick skimming of 50 years of political history.
"I confess," he says, "to a fondness for gossip,
which, indeed, is a conservative genre. Gossips do not want to change
the world; they want to enjoy it."
Mickey Kaus argues that reporting on the private lives
of politicians gets people more interested in politics. He writes July
9, 2007 on
Slate: "L.A.'s mayor faces some N.Y.
tabloid-style questioning at a news conference. The L.A.
Times reporter who didn't get the story doesn't
know quite what to make of this new state of affairs--I
detect a mild sneering tone! Luke Ford sees a "beautiful synchronicity."
... I think Angelenos may be actually getting interested in local
politics for once, which will give us better government in the long
run. Special interests (e.g., unions, developers) have less power when
people are actually paying attention. [What will happen if
all the pols in power are no longer womanizers, etc.?--ed Not
a serious possibility.]"
Academic Kevin Glynn said the tabloid media "multiplies
and amplifies the heterogenous voices and viewpoints in circulation in
contemporary culture, giving rein to many that are typically excluded
from the dominant regime of truth... The shrill and revulsive response
to tabloid media form 'respectable' journalism and other elite social
quarters indicates the extent to which their popularity threatens
officialdom's power to regulate the discursive procedures through which
we make sense of society and ourselves. 'Serious' journalism is far
more concerned with controlling, organizing, and ordering the hierarchy
of voices it admits into its discurse reportoir than is tabloid news,
whose contents are driven by ratings and circulation." (Pg. 132-133 of
Journalism: Truth or Dare).
Ian Hargreaves writes:
Glynn brings to his advocacy for tabloid journalism a
specifically political case, involving the election to the governorship
of Minnesota in 1998 of Jesse "The Body" Ventura, a former professional
wrestler and radio talk-show "shock jock." Glynn sees the very high
turnout in this election (over 60 per cent, compared with less than 50
per cent even for presidential races) resulting from Ventura's fluency
with tabloid-style communication, that enabled him to assemble an
extraordinary coalition of supporters, many of them normally excluded
from the political domain. (Pg. 134)
Liz Smith says: "Gossip is just news running ahead of
itself in a red satin gown."
Camille Paglia says: "Half-fictionalized as they are,
the tabloids with their twin themes of sex of violence tell the pagan
truth about life."
Shafer writes for Slate Aug. 27, 2007 about New
York Times public editor Clark Hoyt's Aug. 26 column:
One of the flaws in Hoyt's thinking is his belief that
one's reputation is a possession --like a car or a tennis racket --
when one's reputation actually resides in the minds of others.
A person can have as many reputations as people who know him or know of
him. Positing that the top link in a Google search of a name equals
somebody's reputation is silly, and Hoyt's column only encourages that
If Google users conclude that an individual is guilty
of fondling a child just because a Times story
reported his arrest, that says more about their gullibility than it
does about the inadequacies of the Web or the Times.
The Times is wonderful, but it's not a vaccine
Whatever their shortcomings, search engines are a
million times superior to human memory, which they are rapidly
The Web also offers those wounded a variety of ways to
manage their reputations and mitigate the offenses of the New
York Times (and of other publications).
By exaggerating the absolute power of the Times
and Google to determine reputation, Hoyt's column encourages people to
think of themselves as technopawns. (It also damages Hoyt's reputation
in the process, but that's his problem.) I'm all for getting the Times
to correct meaningful errors of fact in a decent
interval, but if you want to secure a better reputation than the one
that Google currently spits out, get busy and build it yourself.